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Cornish: Logh
Grid reference: SX254533
Location: 50°21’13"N, 4°27’14"W
Population: 5,280  (2001)
Post town: Looe
Postcode: PL13
Dialling code: 01503
Local Government
Council: Cornwall
South East Cornwall

Looe is a delightful fishing port and seaside town on the south coast of Cornwall, set on and divided in twain by the tidal River Looe, which serves as its busy harbour. It is a small town, with a population of 5,280 at the 2001 census. The town is approximately seven miles south of Liskeard, to which it is linked by the delightful Looe Valley Railway.

Divided by the river, Looe was long considered two towns, East Looe and West Looe, and indeed each was formerly a borough of itself. East Looe is the main town today. Notwithstanding the Victorian bridge, a ferry still crosses the river between East Looe and West Looe when the tide is high enough.

The town is squeezed into a steep-sided valley and both East Looe and West Looe bravely climb its sides up breakneck lanes and paths. At the foot flows the River Looe which opens into the English Channel here beside a sandy beach. Offshore to the west, opposite the stonier Hannafore beach, lies the picturesque St George's Island, commonly known as Looe Island.


The name Looe is taken from that of its river, which is from the ancient Cornish language: Logh meaning deep water inlet. The River is similarly divided, united only at the edge of the town, it is fed by the East Looe River and West Looe River.

The Cornish language applied the name Logh to the river and to East Looe only; West Looe was Porthbyhan[1] meaning "little cove".

East Looe

East Looe is the main town, on the east bank of the river. Here are the main shops, many of them tourist shops, tea shops, pubs and the like, here the main fishing harbour facilities and warehouse, the town hall and church. The town runs out to the beach, popular in season, stretching east of the rivermouth, which is defined by the distinctive Banjo Pier.

Stretching back from the beach is a grid of narrow streets forming the main business area of the town, packed with many small shops, restaurants and pubs, and the Old Guildhall, now Looe Museum. Along the estuary lies the quay, with several fish dealers. Towards the bridge lies the Victorian Guildhall, and just north of the bridge the railway station; the terminus of the Looe Valley Line, the branch line to Liskeard (where the line connects with the main Plymouth to Penzance Great Western Main Line).

The town climbs up steep streets to the hilltop and the cliff path running out high above the beach, in pretty whitewashed houses, both the dwellings of local folk and B&Bs.

On the hilltop above East Looe lies Shutta, and beyond that the Sunrising housing estate and Looe Community School. Along the cliffs to the east is Plaidy Beach, and further on the bay and village of Millendreath with another beach.

West Looe

View down West Looe Hill, looking towards the harbour

West Looe has the village's chandlery and car park, and a more modest stretch of shops. It spreads west from the bridge on the Polperro Road towards Sclerder, and along the river south of the bridge, with hotels, restaurants and boarding houses along the waterfront and houses climbing the perilous cliff above, towards a cluster of shops and businesses and the Church of St Nicholas, timbered with the timbers of captured Spanish ships.

Further south along the coast road is Hannafore Point, marking the edge of Looe Harbour, with to the west the wide, stony Hannafore beach, facing across a narrow channel to Looe Island (officially called St George's Island). Slightly inland is the hamlet of Portlooe. Beyond lies a coastal path leading to the hamlets of Porthallow and Talland, and from there on to Polperro. Two towers mark one end of a nautical measured mile, the other end is marked by two towers near Talland Bay.[2]

Beach and the Banjo Pier

Looe Lifeboat Station

East Looe centres on its broad sandy beach, with the distinctive Banjo Pier, creation of Joseph Thomas, a new lifeboat station and St Mary's Church.

The beach sits in the bay between the pier and the headland. The pier is known locally as the Banjo Pier from its distinctive shape: a straight cob ending in a circular rotunda, on which is a light and piercing foghorn, protecting the harbourmouth of the river.


Prehistory and foundation

Archeological evidence, such as the so-called Giant's Hedge and the stone circle at Bin Down (from the Cornish "Bin Dun", meaning "hill fort") on a hill above East Looe, indicates that the area around Looe was inhabited as early as 1000 BC.

At the time of the Domesday Book the manor of Pendrym, which included much of the site of modern-day East Looe, was held by the King as part of his own demesne and came to be managed by the Bodgrugan (Bodrigan) family. Land across the river belonged to the manors of Portalla (or Portallant) and Portbyhan (variously spelt Portbyan, Porthbyghan, Porthpyghan, among others).

Shutta, on the steep hillside over East Looe, is known to have been inhabited by the twelfth century. At some time between 1154 and 1189 a charter was granted by Henry II to Sir Henry Bodrugan for the town of East Looe. West Looe was given free borough status sometime after this (the first known historical mention of the town dates from 1327) and in the 1230s East Looe gained the right to hold a weekly market and a Michaelmas fair.

In these early days, East Looe may have been a "planted borough", a concept similar to modern new towns; much of it is laid out in a grid-like pattern. Even today the low-lying parts of Looe suffer frequent flooding when the tides are very high. Most houses in early Looe would have been constructed with the living quarters upstairs above storage areas for boats, tools and fishing tackle.

Early churches

Some time before 1144, a monastic order began using Looe Island, and built a chapel there; the monks may have provided a rudimentary lighthouse service using beacons. Another chapel sat opposite on a hillside just outside West Looe; both are now marked only by ruins.

The parish church of East Looe was at St Martin by Looe but there was a chapel of ease in the town. The Church of St Mary in East Looe was dedicated in 1259 by Walter Bronscombe, Bishop of Exeter. It fell into disrepair and was rebuilt, commencing 1805, although the original tower still remains. In the centre of the bridge stood the chapel of St Anne (dedicated in 1436): the dedication was attributed to the town chapel by Dr Oliver and it has since been adopted, displacing that to St Mary.[3]

The parish church of West Looe was originally at Talland but there was a chapel of ease in the town. St. Nicholas' Church in West Looe was in existence before 1330, at which time it was endowed and enlarged. After spells as a Guildhall and schoolhouse, it is now back in its original use, having been substantially restored in 1852, 1862 and 1915.[3]

Development, trade and politics

An early wooden bridge over the Looe river was in place by 1411; this burned down and was replaced by the first stone bridge, completed in 1436 and featuring a chapel dedicated to St Anne in the middle (the current bridge, a seven-arched Victorian bridge, was opened in 1853). By this time Looe had become a major port, one of Cornwall's largest, exporting local tin, arsenic and granite, as well as hosting thriving fishing and boatbuilding industries. The town provided some 20 ships for the siege of Calais in 1347.

Looe thrived in this era, being both a busy port and situated near one of the main roads from London to Penzance. By this time the textile industry had come to play an important part in the town's economics, in addition to the traditional boatbuilding and fishing (particularly pilchards and crabs). Trade and transportation to and from thriving Newfoundland also aided the town's success. The Old Guildhall in East Looe is believed to date from around 1500.

Between their incorporation in the 16th century (East Looe 1571, West Looe 1553) and the Great Reform Act of 1832, West Looe and East Looe were renowned examples of rotten boroughs, each returning two Members of Parliament to the unreformed House of Commons, despite their tiny populations. For example, Admiral Sir Charles Wager, a son and grandson of Kentish mariners, held the office of West Looe MP early (1713–1715) and at the end (1741–1743) of his political career. The seal of East Looe was An antique one-mast vessel in it a man and boy against the side of the hulk three escutcheons each charges with three bends, with the legend "Si: comunetatis de Loo". The seal of West Looe was An armed man holding a bow in his right hand and an arrow in his left, with the legend "Por-tu-an other wys Westlo".[4]

19th century

By the start of the 1800s, Looe's fortunes were in decline. War against Napoleon had taken its toll of the country; in 1803, the town formed a volunteer company to man guns in defence against attack from the French, and the blockade of 1808, preventing the Looe fleet from reaching their pilchard-fishing ground, put considerable pressure on the town. In 1805, the old St. Mary's Chapel (apart from the tower) had to be demolished due to dilapidation, and in 1817, the town was badly damaged by heavy storms and flooding.

With the building of the Liskeard and Looe Union Canal linking Looe to Liskeard in 1828, and the development of booming copper mines in western Cornwall from 1837, Looe's fortunes began to pick up again. The canal was used first to transport lime from Glamorgan for use in Cornish farming, and later to carry copper and granite between the railhead at Liskeard (from where rail links reached to the Cheesewring on Bodmin Moor) and the port at Looe. In 1856 the large quay of East Looe was built to handle the demands of the shipping trade, and in 1860, with the canal unable to keep up with demand, a railway was built linking Looe to Moorswater near Liskeard, along the towpath of the canal, which was used less and less until, by 1910, traffic ceased entirely. The railway was later linked to Liskeard proper, and as the mining boom came to an end, it began carrying passengers in 1879.

In 1866, a lifeboat station had been established on East Looe beach, and in 1878 a new Town Hall was built, the present-day Guildhall. Around this time recommendations were made that the two towns be merged under one governing body, and despite much protest the Looe Urban District Council was formed in 1898 to govern the whole of Looe.

20th century

With the Victorian keenness for seaside holidays, Looe had become a tourist town, with nearby Talland Bay being dubbed "the playground of Plymouth". This trend continued throughout the 20th century; more and more hotels and tourist facilities were built in the town, and Looe grew and prospered, with peaks in fishing and boatbuilding following the First and Second World Wars.

Looe today

View towards Looe from near Looe Island

Looe remains a fishing town, and several fish dealers operate from the docks of East Looe. With its fleet of small fishing boats returning their catches to port daily, Looe has a reputation for producing excellent fresh fish. The town is also a centre for shark fishing, and is the home of the Shark Angling Club of Great Britain.[5]

Looe's main business today is, however, tourism, with much of the town given over to hotels, guest houses and holiday homes, along with a large number of pubs, restaurants, and shops selling beach equipment, ice cream and Cornish pasties. Inland from Looe lie many camping and caravan sites, as well as a famous Woolly monkey sanctuary. Other local attractions include the beaches, sailing, fishing and diving, and spectacular coastal walks (especially that by way of Talland to Polperro. Several stately homes, including Antony House, Cotehele, Mount Edgcumbe, and Lanhydrock House, as well as the Eden Project near St Austell may be visited by tourists who can travel by car.

Outside the busy summer months, the town remains a centre for shopping and entertainment for local villagers. There is a tradition of the townsfolk wearing fancy dress on New Year's Eve, when the streets are thronged with revellers in inventive outfits. Looe is being regenerated, like many other ports, to serve as a small cargo port. On the high ground north of East and West Looe there are many modern houses and a recreational area called 'The Downs'.

New Year's celebration

On New Year's Eve, Looe has a surprisingly large celebration. The small fishing town, usually quiet in winter, due to the largely seasonal economy, is host to an influx of visitors. People flock the streets in their hundreds, wearing fancy dress, a tradition upheld by all ages. The crowds begin the evening in the town and slowly move towards the seafront for a fireworks display, and the announcement of the new year.

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Looe)


Historical resources



  1. http://www.magakernow.org.uk/idoc.ashx?docid=f3fabe0c-206f-4e0c-8889-4ce4a5060e5b&version=-1
  2. Nautical Measured Mile Markers - Tony White
  3. 3.0 3.1 Cornish Church Guide (1925) Truro: Blackford; pp. 148-49
  4. Pascoe, W. H. (1979). A Cornish Armory. Padstow, Cornwall: Lodenek Press. p. 133. ISBN 0-902899-76-7. 
  5. Shark Angling Club of Great Britain - Shark Angling Club of Great Britain